As far as I can roughly calculate, the road trip has now been responsible for around 6,000 miles, 14 different states, and has had eleven different participants, as well as maybe a dozen others that have been taxied around. I’m not currently an active participant. Stopped in Colorado for a week of work and relaxation, a nice change from the constant come-and-go of the road trip; it ended up being far more taxing than I ever expected.
Most of us underestimated the spectacular possibilities of throwing ten strong individuals into a van together to drive across the country. We constantly had to compromise with each other, often more than any of us could’ve imagined, and at any given point, there was probably one person who was completely unhappy with the direction, itinerary, or group choice made by everyone else. I think it was also a lesson to every one of us what compromise really is, and that sometimes you give up as much ground as you think you gain. The way I equated it to some people in the van, as well as others outside looking in at our road trip process, was that we were all in real- time living through the clashes of our assumed “Peace Corps Salone” personalities and our at home ones. In Sierra Leone we woke up every day under the same circumstances, facing the same challenges, knowing that we had 54 people in our training class that were undergoing the same hardships, providing instant relatability, solidarity, and camaraderie. It created a situation where we did, from the moment we hopped off the plane in Lungi airport, have a fast bond and common goal. That has also difficult with us being displaced back into America. Everyone dropped back into their old lifestyles and customs, and essentially dropped whatever style, front, or even facade they tried to play off in Africa for their old and deeply ingrained American one. So when we had come to know a cohesion of Salone personalities, we ended up experiencing a clash of American ones.
Driving from Seattle to Chicago was a 10 day affair for us, covering nine states and nearly 3,000 miles. It felt like a proper Americana tour, seeing and visiting Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower, Mt. Rushmore, and Crazy Horse Memorial. We first stopped in Glacier, arriving at 1230 in the morning, with everyone but the driver and copilot asleep upon arrival. It was later than I wanted us to roll into the park, but I had underestimated how long the drive would be… and I couldn’t really complain that we got in later than any entrance was open, as we were able to camp without paying the combined 40 dollars in entrance and campground fees. It was a cold night that we weren’t entirely prepared for, so we rose early and packed into the car to drive through the park, and pack the van with our body heat. For those who have never been to Glacier National Park, the main attraction of the park is arguably Going To The Sun Road, which cuts through the park east to west. Cresting at Logan Pass (6,600ft) it doesn’t disappoint. At one point I was driving through a deep and narrow valley staring at a a soaring mountain ahead of me with a sheer vertical face from the valley floor to what I guessed was its 9,000ft peak. The sun caught a glimmer of a moving object, and I realized that the road cut across the spectacular face several thousand feet above me. It was one of the most beautiful drives I have ever done, and I had serious trouble keeping my eyes on the road, much less keeping myself from stopping at every turnout so we could take photos, photos, and more photos.
We reached the Visitor Center atop Logan Pass, and I dropped everyone else off to go to the bathroom, check out the mini-museum, and stretch their legs, as I spent an agonizing twenty minutes circling the parking lot for an empty space. Eventually my copilot Emerson got the bright idea of approaching people walking into the parking space to ask for theirs…Why we didn’t think of that immediately was beyond me. Our time in Glacier was ultimately limited by our plans to get into Yellowstone by the evening. We went for a short hike to a lookout over Hidden Lake but didn’t have the time to continue on anything much longer.
The drive to Yellowstone through western and southern Montana was beautiful, with expansive Mesas and distant mountain ranges. Big Sky country is a fitting title for the state. We arrived in Yellowstone late, but not as late as the night before. We spent two nights in Yellowstone with a reserved campsite thanks to yet another of our Peace Corps friends, Mary from Missouri. Driving through Yellowstone, there seemed to be a geyser around every vista, plumes of steam rising from the ground into the cold mountain air. The day was spent visiting Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, and Mammoth Hot Springs.
As the sun started to dip towards the horizon everything in sight became even more otherworldly. Yellowstone seemed to take on a different color, and the sunset had a kaleidoscopic array of colors that in my experience I could only relate to the most fantastic of Los Angeles smog- induced sunsets. The colors continued to change and morph until all sunlight had faded to the west.
Our day in Yellowstone was followed by another marathonic drive; eastward from the National Park towards South Dakota with the goal of getting to the north end of the Black Hills. We visited the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, shrouded in a thick morning fog that made visibility difficult, but still revealed enough to grasp the immensity of the chasm. Another brief stop in Grand Teton National Park to see the Teton’s in all their glory, and then eastward.
I was surprised with the beauty of northern Wyoming, and had we had more time, I would’ve probably created some excuse to force a detour through either the Wind River Range or Bighorn Mountains. We came upon Devil’s Tower just before sunset as yet another thick fog was rolling in, this one for a winter storm morning in what was still technically summer. The resulting view created an extraterrestrial realm befitting the giant rock formation that had already been featured in alien movies. The very top of the 1300ft monolith was lost in the clouds, giving the appearance that it continued skyward forever.
We left just in time, as the fog thickened and dropped, almost instantly killing our view on the ground and nearly swallowing us in zero visibility. The last segment of our day was a drive in the dark to the town of Spearfish on the northern end of the Black Hills, just over the border in South Dakota.